Debris Fire Causes Structural Damage to Dismal Bridge

September 8, 2010
Dwayne Page
Debris from May Floods lodged underneath Dismal Bridge
Debris Fire Damages Dismal Bridge (Photo by Donny Green)
Firefighters Called to Debris Blaze at Dismal Bridge (Photo by Donny Green)

While it remains open to traffic, the Dismal bridge on the Alexandria to Dismal Road over Smith Fork Creek may have received significant structural damage during a fire which was set there Wednesday afternoon.

On Wednesday at 4:56 p.m. Central dispatch received a report of a fire at the bridge. Someone had set fire to the driftwood and debris underneath the bridge, which had washed up and lodged there during the May floods.

The debris has remained there since the floods, pending issuance of state permits giving the road department the authority to proceed with the cleanup.

County Fire Chief Donny Green said members of the Liberty and Temperance Hall stations and a tanker truck from the DeKalb County Volunteer Fire Department rushed to the scene upon receiving the call and when they arrived, firefighters found a roaring blaze coming from under the bridge. "It was a very large fire," said Green. " Flames were leaping out from around both sides of the bridge, probably ten feet high above each side."

Firefighters even had to use a floating pump to draw water from the creek to help put out the blaze.

Green said the fire was so intense that it caused sizeable chunks of concrete to break apart from the bridge. Road Supervisor Kenny Edge was called to the scene to assess the damage.

Edge told WJLE Wednesday night that a witness saw a vehicle parked near the bridge just before the fire started. "He said he was out in a field and he saw an old truck with a camper on it setting there but there wasn't any fire or smoke, but after a few minutes he heard what sounded like somebody shooting a 22. It kept popping so he went over there and found the smoke and fire rolling out from under the bridge. Somebody had set that huge drift on fire."

The debris would have already been cleaned up but according to Edge, the EPA required the road department to obtain permits from the state before the cleanup work could be done. "We (Road Department) had attempted to remove it (debris) after the flood. We had removed about an eighth to a fourth of it but the EPA told us we couldn't without the proper permit because it (repair and cleanup) was going to be covered under this FEMA disaster relief program so we had to stop. We were waiting on the permit but it hadn't come in yet."

It's not yet known whether whoever set the fire was up to no good or thought they were being helpful in destroying the debris but it has caused a lot of damage. In fact, Edge claims that at least a third of the bridge may have to be replaced. " By the time the fire fighters got there, it (blaze) had got so huge that it had busted sections of the concrete off four inches up into those girder beams as far as twelve to fifteen feet in length and it popped a lot of concrete off the side of those beams three feet up on the beams. If we do have to tear down a third of it (bridge) it could run four to five hundred thousand dollars to replace it. About twenty percent of one end of the bridge is damaged but the bridge is split up into three sections. It goes from the abutment over to the first pier and we'd have to replace those four concrete beams and they reach from the abutment to the first pier which is one third of the bridge."

Edge plans to bring in an engineer to assess the damage to the bridge. " We'll get the proper engineer down here that can diagnose how many degrees of heat that it took to bust that much concrete off. Those beams are just concrete beams. They've got steel cables that run through them from one end to the other. They're stretched on a wenching system and when they're set on that concrete those steel cables help support the concrete beams. Right now some of those steel cables are showing. It busted the concrete all the way off back to some of those cables."

Even with the damage, Edge believes the bridge is still safe to travel. ‘I believe it's safe for automobiles. I got under it after they got the fire put out and we drove a fire truck across it so it might last for years but as far as knowing the structural damage, we're going to get an engineer up here to look at it and if we have to replace those four beams the bridge would have to be down for a while. We don't know for sure how we're going to handle it right now but the highway department can't afford it (repair). The county would have to pitch in and help me do it or we'll have to put in (apply) for a federal grant. That's what built it, eighty percent federal money. It cost $1.1 million to build it. I built that with eighty percent federal government money. I applied for a grant and they (federal) paid eighty percent of it. The highway department paid for fourteen percent and the county general paid six percent."

Edge says the Dismal bridge, which is perhaps the largest on the county road system, was completed just two years ago.

If you have information that could help find the person or persons who started this fire, please contact the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department at 597-4935.

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